State legislatures: why Republican wave of 2010 is here to stay

Election 2012 is not expected to be a repeat of the historic 2010 Republican sweep, but recent redistricting might have helped the GOP cement its ascendancy for a few more years.

Hans Pennink/AP/File
The New York state Senate, currently controlled by Republicans, is one chamber that could flip on Nov. 6, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Tuesday voting will not likely match the historic Republican sweep of state legislatures two years ago, but Republicans are expected remain on top as they take advantage of the redistricting changes made since 2010 on their watch.

Twenty chambers are forecast to switch parties – higher than the average of 13 that typically switch every two-year election cycle. But unlike 2010, when all 22 chambers that flipped control turned Republican, both Democrats and Republicans could make gains on Nov. 6, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a research organization in Washington. 

"Right now, some races are so close, it does not appear to be a big wave for either party,” says Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the NCSL.

Thanks to 2010, Republicans have majority control of 59 of the 98 state chambers. Democrats currently control 36 chambers, and three are tied. “Republicans are at their highest point of control of legislating since the 1920s, in not just winning seats, but winning chambers across the country," says Mr. Storey. The midterm vote "was a sweep in every state of the word.” 

But the tea party surge that fueled the Republican gains does not appear to be playing as much of a role this year.

The state legislature election “is very localized, it is not a wave cycle. This is the first time since 2004 we are seeing the election turn out in a way where one party does not run the table on all close contests,” says Louis Jacobson, who is forecasting the election at PolitiFact, a fact-checking project operated by the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. “It’s going to matter on candidate quality, not weaker candidates riding on the coattails of a strong party wave.”

That doesn’t mean Tuesday’s election will not make the history books. Expected wins for Republicans in both the Arkansas House and Senate will give Republicans control of every legislative chamber in the South. Democrats have controlled state politics in Arkansas for more than 130 years.

Steady Republican gains since the days when Bill Clinton was president helped move the numbers away from Democrats, plus recent redistricting efforts have favored more sparsely populated parts of the state, where something as simple as a familiar name can prove decisive.

“The districts in Arkansas are still relatively small and rural, which isn’t like all states, so candidates can run on their own name and not necessarily run on a party label,” says Storey of NCSL.

More broadly, Republicans are expected to maintain control of a majority of state legislative chambers. A major factor is the remapping of district boundaries that took place in 2010. Typically, the majority party is tasked with the redistricting, which, more often than not, helps the party in power preserve its gains during the next 10 years.

“There’s no question that partisans use the redistricting process to their advantage in the short term, but also for the next decade, so that outcomes will be more favorable to them,” says Sundeep Iyer, an analyst at the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank in New York City.

But the benefits might not last until 2020.

“The general rule is that the redistricting norm persists for at least several elections because the new districts ensure the current majority will remain the future majority,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "So what you see today will persist in the near future, but will deteriorate over time.”

For now, that should allow Republicans to continue pushing their agenda of low taxes, spending cuts, and legislation against public-sector unions and illegal immigration, among other things. But states where Republican governors are facing reelection in 2014 – such as Wisconsin and Ohio – might trend more moderate in their policies, says Mr. Jacobson of PolitiFact.

“Those governors are now going to have to face voters for the first time since they won, and a number of them are more conservative than the electorate. That will shape how the next two years are going to play out and can certainly change the tone of what will happen,” he says.

For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) found himself facing a recall election following spending cuts and an attack on public unions. Republicans now have the opportunity to ease their agenda during the next two years to help Governor Walker sail through a reelection, Jacobson says.

“They can afford to take a less high-temperature approach,” he says. “They can hold back to win voters to their side."

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